Halloween means a lot to so many of us, especially for musicians. To know that you can alter the mood of the audience so effectively with a single instrument just might give you the motivation to master more difficult techniques and sheet music. This time of the year is also the best to face your fears and challenge yourself. For some that could be more practice, more research, or trying something completely new. Pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone is what the season is all about, and that includes watching a horror film. This article will provide you with a list of classic themes from some of the most influential and timeless movies from Hollywood and beyond.
Halloween Theme, John Carpenter (1978)
The all-time classic theme rings in the season in a near-perfect sonic representation of what it feels like to be scared. Inspired by John Williams and the iconic score for Jaws, Carpenter--himself the son of a music professor--decided to use the two-note motif to the extreme. The result is the iconic synthesized piano played in 5/4 time, a signature that Carpenter knew was mostly reserved for percussion. His goal was to create suspense, wind tension, and inspire fear. The off-kilter piano is coupled with precisely timed keyboard strikes that almost feel like the slice of a knife. Halloween has not only become synonymous with the villainous Michael Meyers but redefined the musical landscape for every horror film that came after it.
Suspiria (Main Theme), Goblin (1975)
Not the first film to be scored by a rock band, though certainly one of the most memorable, Suspiria was a cult classic that found a larger audience years after its release. Its stark set design, supernatural plot, anxieties about artistic integrity, and body horror make it a memorable piece of Italian horror. The band Goblin provided the unsettling soundtrack, using electric guitar and music box-like themes to play on the main character Suzy's experience as a ballet dancer. This is progressive rock at its most bizarre and intense; as Suzy's world falls apart, so too does the soundtrack.
The 2018 remake starting Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton is also notable for its haunting soundtrack composed by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, who incorporates a healthy dose of existential dread into an already psychologically intense storyline.
Tubular Bells, Mike Oldfield (1973)
How do you make the scariest film in the history of film more terrifying? Use as little music as possible. With only seventeen total minutes of music in the entirety of The Exorcist, it needed to count, and the use of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells" over the opening credits of the film are a perfect fit. Oldfield is a guitarist, progressive rocker, and folk musician, and similarly to John Carpenter's Halloween theme, he also relied on keyboard, synth, and an unconventional time signature. Interestingly enough, Oldfield wasn't a composer for the film, but simply allowed part of his 26-minute opus to be used.
Candyman Theme, Philip Glass (1992)
Sometimes it's simplest melody that ends up scaring us the most. How many of us remember this theme and get just a little afraid of looking at our reflection in the mirror? Classical composer Philip Glass is to blame, with a brilliant first (and only!) foray into scoring horror films. Through tense piano, a mysterious chorus, and a creepy glockenspiel, Glass elevates a film that he felt was destined to only be a schlocky slasher. Though that is part of Candyman's charm, it certainly remains a modern-day classic for its social commentary and its paranoid depiction of early 90s Chicago. Just don't say his name five times, and you should be just fine.
Dentist! from Little Shop of Horrors, Alan Menken & Howard Ashman (1986)
By the 80s, a horror movie musical might have seemed a little incongruous, but remaking the Broadway musical classic with nearly every single famous comedian of the time was an opportunity not to be missed. This black comedy romp still manages to take a creepy storyline--a young and naive scientist engineers a man-eating, sentient plant named Audrey II--and treat it with an appropriate level of darkness and gallows humor. While there are so many iconic hits from this version of the musical, Steve Martin's portrayal of the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello is arguably the most memorable (and quotable) scene in the film. It will make you think twice about what happens when you are put to sleep at the dentist's office...
Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga (Main Title), Michael Abels (2017)
Jordan Peele's masterpiece Get Out demanded an intricate score to go along with its multi-layered storyline. He recruited Michael Abels after hearing one of his songs on YouTube, and asked him to create the score for his first feature film. What's very effective about the score itself is that it is completely based in the main character Chris's perspective. Everything that he experiences in the film is also told in a sonic storyline through the music. When he feels afraid, the music matches. Abel incorporated chanting in Swahili for the main motif of Get Out as a way to represent the ancestral voices of African people speaking to Chris from beyond the grave, warning him to run away and survive.
So, in the words of Ghostface, what's your favorite scary movie? What theme keeps you up at night, makes you jump at shadows? Let us know in the comments!